Libraries, Archives, Technology, Impending Doom
Buried within the excited announcement of a new model of a popular device is the dirge for the generation of devices that have just been made obsolete. Granted, there is an important distinction to be made between obsolete and functional – for many a device continues to work quite well even though it is no longer the most fashionable model. For the cycle of planned obsolescence and the constant unveiling of new versions is less about device users’ needs than it is about the device seller’s need to make the aforementioned users keep buying. Though lost in this cycle is much discussion of what happens to the discarded items.
Based upon the early projections, it seems quite likely that the iPhone 6 will sell quite impressively – in excess of four million of the new phones have been pre-ordered. While it is certainly likely that there are some amongst those millions for whom the iPhone 6 will be their very first smart phone – the diffusion of smart phones (including older model iPhones) in technological societies suggests that for many of those pre-ordering the iPhone 6 (if not most) this model will be a new phone, but not their first phone. And either there was a hugely coincidental series of calamities in which millions of phones broke at the exact moment when the iPhone 6 was announced, or many of those pre-ordering the iPhone 6 are still in possession of function in phones. Therefore, it is not too great a logical leap to hypothesize that the arrival of the iPhone 6 means that several million older phones will now be heading to the trash – regardless of whether or not they still worked.
It would be a serious mistake to make it seem as if this is a problem exclusive to Apple, or for that matter to make it seem that this is a problem related solely to smart phones, or to success for that matter. From computers (desktop and laptop) to smart phones (of all sizes) to tablets and e-readers to video game systems and mp3 players (remember those?) – consumer electronics have represented a dizzying quantity of goods over the last decade, and there are few signs to suggest that the floodgates are going to be closed at any time soon. Beyond the steady flow of new phones, tablets and gaming consoles we appear to be at the beginning of a deluge of new products characterized as either “wearable technology” or products that fall under the amorphous heading of “the Internet of things.” Beyond the matter of success – even as the iPhone 6 appears that it will sell quite well there are any number of also-rans that went from excited announcement straight to the dirge: such as Amazon’s much touted Fire phone, which failed to kindle much excitement amongst consumers.
Yet, to state the question again, what becomes of all of the discarded devices? The old phones, the out of date laptops, the trucks filled with large appliances that are suddenly treated as “dumb” with the unveiling of “smart” products courtesy of the Internet of things – where do all of these things go? It is worth bearing in mind that even many of the things that are sent to be properly “recycled” wind up being shipped across the world so that this recycling takes place in dangerously toxic conditions. Recycling is rarely the perfectly sustainable solution that we often like to believe it is. If – to borrow a formulation from Paul Virilio – the invention of the ship was also the invention of the shipwreck, than the invention of the computer was also the invention of computer waste (or “e-waste” as it is commonly known). In her fantastic book on the topic (Digital Rubbish) the sociologist Jennifer Gabrys writes that:
“While the electronic industry has speed and turnover in mind, it typically employs materials that last for decades. Here are copper and plastic, mercury and lead, substances thicker and more enduring than any transcription of ones and zeros.” (Gabrys, 87)
And as Gabrys goes to great lengths to demonstrate throughout the rest of her book the breaking down of these components – be it slowly in the dump or swiftly in an e-waste recycling zone result in toxins leeching into the soil or leeching into the people actually having to perform the recycling work. Thus, even as the iPhone 6 is touted for having an extremely resilient screen, it is worth wondering what it will mean for the planet (and for people) when these chemically concocted cases wind up slowly degrading in the landfill.
All of brings us to a concrete suggestion for what is an all too material problem: the firms that design, make and sell consumer electronics (and similar devices) should be fully responsible and accountable for ensuring that these devices can be safely and totally recycled. While there may be the occasional thoughtless person who simply chucks an old device in the trash – a person should be able to take an old iPod to the Apple store and know with complete certainty (this is where transparency and accountability comes in) that this device will not wind up gathering dust for want of a solution in a storage container or wind up poisoning people in another country who work to extract the few reusable metals from the device. Cultures built on consumerism result in the problems of overconsumption as old products are constantly chucked out for newer models – and those who have to cope with this toxic waste (for it truly is toxic) are seldom those who have gotten to enjoy the products at the outset. If a company is going to build a business strategy upon releasing a new model every year or so, they should bear responsibility for ensuring that the previous model can be fully, safely, and ethically disposed. Those whose fortunes depend upon a throwaway culture bear responsibility for that which their marketing strategies require to be thrown away.
While a case can certainly be argued that such a requirement would result in prices on electronics being raised rather significantly, the appropriate counter is not to deny this but to point out that the current prices (expensive though they may be) are simultaneously artificially high and artificially low. The price of a new product generally has to do with the classing of the object as a “luxury” item a “mid range” one or a product simply for the hoi polloi – the price is seldom a genuine reflection of “how much it costs to make and sell this device” (after all, the company wants to make a tidy profit). Yet the true concern is in the artificially low aspect of the price – for the consumer is not made to pay for costs such as the ecological (and human) destruction wrought by the mining of coltan and copper or the similar types of devastation that occur when the device is transformed into e-waste. Even if the price tag does not show such costs – the user winds up paying them eventually insofar as they live on a planet being sickened by the constant flux of such devices into people, the land, and waterways. There is no higher cost to humanity than a gutted ecosystem – and the entire species (as well as other species) will pay the price for our demand for cheap goods.
Likewise there may be some who would argue that such expectations of companies are unfair or will represent a strangling of innovation. To this comment there are, again, multiple answers. At the outset there is nothing wrong with raising an eyebrow suspiciously when the term “innovation” is tossed about – for while new devices may have some moderate advances over previous models, much of what passes for innovations today are really just innovations in the process of convincing people to replace products that still function. Though some serious innovation in the field of recycling of e-waste would certainly be a good (if not necessarily profitable) thing. As for the question of “unfair” – there is nothing ethically unfair about expecting a group to take responsibility for the messes they create. Indeed, if anything is unfair it is that those who bear the worst impacts of technology (miners, assembly plant laborers, e-waste recyclers) are unlikely to be those who are able to enjoy the benefits of using the devices they help to build and deconstruct. Thus, this is ultimately not a matter of fairness but a question of responsibility – a company that unleashes upon the planet a device filled with toxic components should be able to demonstrate a rigorous plan (to which they can be held accountable) that ensures that none of these components will wind up in anybody’s water. The stance of “not in my back yard” is that of the first world technology consumer who desires the product but not the downside, the ethical replacement to this is “yes, not in your back yard, but not in anybody’s back yard!” The tech company CEO who would not want a million discarded smart phones buried in their backyard should be responsible for ensuring that such devices are not buried in anybody’s back yard.
That this proposal sounds rather ridiculous is not entirely besides the point; especially as for this proposal to have any real ethical heft it would need to be twinned with an equally important proposal that demands that all components in a device be fairly obtained and assembled. Yet it is in the seeming outlandishness of this proposal that its point becomes clear: the speed of our technological consumption has outstripped the planet’s ability to absorb the waste, and the lust for the new amongst some groups results in other groups being buried under the sickening weight of the old. When we pursue the new we must take into account what will happen to the old, lest we continue confusing, as Lewis Mumford put it:
“the good life as the goods life,” (Mumford, 105)
If – in the name of ecology, economics, ethics and sanity – tech companies (heck, all companies) were to be made responsible for the waste they create it would be a small step towards addressing the mountains of garbage the zeniths of which are beginning to pop up along the horizon. It would be to once more give primacy to a notion of the “good” instead of “the goods.” At the very least such a demand could alter the way we design, create, sell, buy and dispose of technology.
After all, smart phones and computers are not going away any time soon. However, this point is as true of their use in society as it is true of their presence in landfills. It is incumbent upon us to ensure that e-waste recycling means more than devices being shipped out of sight – and this is a demand that must be placed at the corporate head quarters of the companies that have made fortunes selling these devices. Yet, at the same time, it is important for us to remember that recycling is but the last part of the “three Rs” – the full three being “reduce, reuse, recycle.” While it is better to recycle than to do nothing – it is nevertheless the step that comes after “reduce” and “reuse.” From a technological and ethical standpoint the first two R words are just as important as the last – for we can reduce the number of devices we purchase (do we really need to buy wearable devices or fridges connected to the Internet?) and likewise we can reuse (or simply continue using) the current devices we have until such a point as they genuinely have ceased functioning.
Indeed, it may well be that there needs to be a fourth R word added to that list: responsibility. We need to take responsibility for our own usage of devices, and we need to ensure that our society accepts responsibility for the goods we send to the landfill. Until the Apple product can be disposed of as safely as an apple picked from a tree we will simply be taking out vast ecological loans that our grandchildren will have to pay.
Otherwise it may turn out that the dirge we sing at the next product’s announcement will be one for the planet.
Gabrys, Jennifer. Digital Rubbish. University of Michigan Press, 2013 (available for free through the publisher!)
Mumford, Lewis. Technics and Civilization. University of Chicago Press, 2010.